I was all gung-ho about writing an exhaustive piece on the near creative suicide of The Walking Dead in the first half of season two and its unlikely partial resurrection; but since my colleague Starlee Kine recapped the finale so thoroughly, and with such insight into the season as a whole, I'll just add a few general observations. First, even though the show had nowhere to go but up, quality-wise, and is still far from great (I'd give the first half of season two a D, and the second half a solid B), it's still a remarkable improvement in that it made me care again, sort of. The front half of season two was flat-out awful, the kind of botch that makes you want to abandon a series for good and never look back; it took any potential for greatness The Walking Dead had fitfully demonstrated in season one, threw it on the ground, and tap-danced all over it. And yet somehow the back half of season two, overseen by co-executive producers Robert Kirkman and Glen Mazzara following the awkward departure of Frank Darabont, was infinitely more watchable. I say "somehow" because recent episodes featured the same thin principal characters making the same astoundingly stupid decisions and spewing the same sub-Oprah, pseudo-therapeutic, Let's-All-Talk-About-Our-Feelings-and-Needs position-paper non-dialogue, which reduced the most horrendous scenario imaginable, the collapse of civilization, to the level of upper-middle-class inconvenience: the apocalypse as missing Fresh Direct delivery.
So how did one of the most disappointing dramas on TV save itself from ruination? What changed?
Two things. First, as my friend John Lichman points out in a piece over at IndieWire, these recent episodes apparently departed from the comics. "By adding Daryl (Norman Reedus) and keeping Shane alive (longer), while killing off other should-be survivors like Sophia, Otis and Dale, The Walking Dead proves that a good adaptation doesn't have to be faithful," Lichman writes. I haven't read the comics and have no intention of doing so; a TV series, even one adapted from another medium, is its own thing and should be judged on its own terms. Nevertheless. Lichman makes a number of intriguing points about how the changes complicated the group's dynamics, and made at least some of the characters and situations more engrossing than they were on the page.
Second, and maybe just as important, The Walking Dead developed a much tougher point of view on its characters and their foibles and failings. And it wasn't approving. In fact, there were times when the show's more earnest and idealistic characters were treated as deluded dummies not just by whomever they happened to be talking to, but by the show itself. The effect reminded me of being at a midnight movie and watching some plucky optimist talk about how the monster/evil robot/demon/whatever can be reasoned with while the audience chortled in knowing contempt. The world is ending, fool; now put that peace sign down and pick a gun up.
Consider the moment where the soon-to-be-zombie-gutted-and-mercy-killed Dale tried to talk Shane over to his side in the debate over what to do with the prisoner. Setting aside for a moment the logic of taking the prisoner to start with (it was a stupid idea, and ultimately Rick's responsibility), you could see that scene as representing a clash of two moral/philosophical positions. One (represented by Dale) believes that the survivors try to preserve life as it was because otherwise civilization truly is doomed. The other POV — represented by the sneering Richard Gere–styled asshole antihero Shane, a character I'm going to miss — insists that civilization bit the dirt the minute the first zombie tasted flesh, so why pretend otherwise? Why not adapt to the newer, nastier reality? He who appeals to better angels (to name-check a Walking Dead episode title) ends up zombie chow.
Shane always understood this. So did the crossbow-toting redneck badass Daryl, and Andrea, whose rapport with Shane in the back half of season two had a pleasing old-movie toughness. (When Dale or Lori or some other Polyanna tried out the sunshine-and-lollipops routine, they smirked like grizzled cavalry scouts in an old Western listening to a young second lieutenant recount what West Point taught him about the Apache problem.) Daryl got mostly marginalized this season, which is too bad; he's such a vexing yet likable character that he could power his own spinoff. Ditto Andrea, who's developing the serene toughness of Anne Bancroft in John Ford's Seven Women and Sigourney Weaver in the first couple of Alien films. I didn't like her attack of compassion during the debate over executing the prisoner, but I'll chalk that and Daryl's sometimes irritating hints of "heart" to vestigial remains of the civilization that Rick and Lori apparently still idealize and that Dale used to talk about so fondly. The hints of softness in Andrea, Daryl and other characters is plausible, if awkwardly handled. Humans don't become mercilessly self-preserving overnight. Sometimes it takes a while for all the kindness to get beaten out of them. Any cringe-inducing moments of bad judgement in season two struck me as failures of dramatic execution rather than evidence of some fundamental flaw in the show's conception. We're seeing a slow hardening of the species' collective heart. There's bound to be some backsliding along the decency/cruelty scale.
The Walking Dead is still a pretty silly show with mostly lousy dialogue and plot problems. But its newfound, consistently tough tone helps a lot, and might have guided both actors and filmmakers toward better, sharper choices. With the second half of season two concluded, Walking Dead is a changed show, tougher and pulpier than before, and more comfortable with its innately disreputable subject matter. Any moments of poetry in recent episodes happened in the imagery rather than in the dialogue. Think of that moon looming over Rick and Shane's final confrontation in the field; the old western silhouette of Rick talking to his boy in the window of the barn; those wide shots of zombies shambling away from the fire in the finale, and the climactic reveal of Andrea's hooded, broadsword-toting savior, a mystery woman who was dragging a couple of armless walkers behind her. The series seems to have given up trying to enlighten us. Now it's just showing people in horrible circumstances trying to survive as best they can. (I also dug seeing Lori get called out on her privileged cluelessness; she's trying to preserve an emotional Eden that only she has experienced.) The show seems to have adopted the skepticism of a viewer who's seen a lot of zombie pictures and knows where, more or less, this story is headed: into progressively bleaker and bleaker scenarios. When the characters start rationalizing their more repugnant choices after the fact instead of before, we'll know that their journey from bruised idealism to battle-hardened toughness is complete.